From: American Institute of Physics
Posted: Tuesday, January 8, 2019
The Heineman Foundation, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and American Astronomical Society (AAS) congratulate Edwin A. (Ted) Bergin, professor and chair of astronomy at the University of Michigan, for winning the 2019 Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics.
Bergin’s citation reads: “for his pioneering work in astrochemistry and innovative contributions to our understanding of the physics and chemistry of star and planet formation, and for his tireless efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in astronomy.”
“I’m amazed, awed, and honored to receive the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics,” Bergin said.
“We are pleased to congratulate Edwin Bergin for being awarded the 2019 Heineman Prize for Astrophysics,” said Michael Moloney, CEO at AIP. “Bergin’s work to characterize the materials that form Earth-like worlds addresses fundamental questions from across the physical sciences on the origin of life on our planet.”
“I’m delighted to see my Michigan neighbor receive this prestigious award,” said AAS President Megan Donahue (Michigan State University). “His work is exploring our fundamental understanding of the answers to one of our big questions: how primordial gas turned into stars, planets, and homes for life.”
Astrochemistry is a subfield of astronomy that links star formation to planet formation, to comets, to asteroids and planets. “It’s becoming a mature field and, because it essentially holds the connective tissue that links the evolution from gas and solids in interstellar space to planetary origins,” Bergin said.
“We’re on the cusp of understanding, or trying to characterize, how the materials of Earth-like worlds are first made. Earth is teeming with life on its surface, but we can put this in context in terms of the material needed to make life, the elements hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, by looking at planet formation,” said Bergin.
“If you look at the amount of carbon available at the distance from the Sun where the Earth was born -- the Earth only received one out of 10,000 carbon atoms available; we are a carbon-poor world. We’re also a water-poor world, because only a tiny fraction (0.02%) of Earth’s mass is water. Yet we’re here -- and that’s amazing and so cool,” Bergin said.
The big questions Bergin’s now working to address include: How did Earth come to be, and why was the process for obtaining the elements needed for life so inefficient? And if the process was more or less efficient, what would it mean for life or the formation of a habitable planet located at the right distance from the star so that things would be liquid on its surface? “I want to know if water, carbon or nitrogen exist there,” he said. “Once we understand that, maybe we can determine whether Venus- or Earth-type planets are more common.”
A major challenge in astrochemistry is that the low pressure and temperature conditions in space are difficult to recreate in a laboratory. “My work involves exploring events that happen during planet formation and the composition of Earth-like or Jovian bodies to try to understand how we can trace them back in time to connect the dots of the process,” said Bergin.
Bergin’s ultimate goal is to understand the process of how making a habitable Earth happens. “I won’t get the answer -- it’s wrapped up in so many things,” he noted. “But I will contribute, along with so many others, to this rich landscape that’s unfolding in front of us as we discover more and more planets and begin the possibility of being able to characterize the atmosphere of those planets, to look at their molecular composition, and connect it back to the molecular composition of materials at their birth.”
About the Winner:
Edwin (Ted) Bergin is a Professor in the Department of Astronomy within the College of Literature, Science, and Arts at the University of Michigan. Bergin graduated with a B.S. in astronomy and astrophysics from Villanova University in 1989, and received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Massachusetts in 1995. He then moved to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics where he worked on NASA’s Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite. In 2003, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Henry Russel Award, the highest honor bestowed by the University of Michigan for junior faculty in recognition of an extraordinary record of accomplishment in scholarly research and conspicuous ability as a teacher. In 2007, he was promoted to Associate Professor, and in 2011 to Full Professor. Bergin served (2014-2019) on the University of Michigan’s STRIDE (Strategies and Tactics for Recruiting In Diversity and Excellence) committee. In 2015, he was appointed as department chair, and in 2018 he was elected President of Commission H2 (Astrochemistry) of the International Astronomical Union.
Bergin’s research focus is on using chemistry to explore the origins of stars and planets. He observes and models the chemical conditions that exist as planets are born seeking to determine the link between this composition and the final composition of planets in our solar system and others. This work ultimately aims at understanding whether the supply of life’s needed chemicals is pre-ordained to form an Earth-like world, or whether it’s a rare outcome.
The American Institute of Physics (AIP, aip.org) is a federation of scientific societies in the physical sciences, representing scientists, engineers, educators, and students. AIP offers authoritative information, services, and expertise in physics education and student programs, science communication, government relations, career services, statistical research in physics employment and education, industrial outreach, and history of the physical sciences. AIP publishes Physics Today, the most closely followed magazine of the physical sciences community, and is also home to the Society of Physics Students and the Niels Bohr Library and Archives. AIP owns AIP Publishing LLC, a scholarly publisher in the physical and related sciences.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS, aas.org), established in 1899 and based in Washington, DC, is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America. Its membership (~8,000) also includes physicists, mathematicians, geologists, engineers, and others whose research and educational interests lie within the broad spectrum of subjects comprising contemporary astronomy. The mission of the AAS is to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe, which it achieves through publishing, meeting organization, education and outreach, and training and professional development.
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